The Selfish Altruist

Photo: Piotr Redlinski/Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

In Catherine Keener, writer-director Nicole Holofcener has found a warm, throaty, appealingly bedraggled agent for expressing her up-to-the-minute confusions. Their fourth collaboration is Please Give, an engagingly high-strung comedy about lack of empathy and the gnawing guilt that can attend it. Keener plays Kate, who, along with her husband, Alex (Oliver Platt), runs a furniture store with an inventory purchased from children of old people who’ve just died. They’re so successful—most of those heirs have no clue what their parents’ furniture is worth—that they’ve bought the apartment next door and plan to break through once its 91-year-old tenant (Ann Morgan Guilbert) gives up the ghost. But Kate doesn’t want to see herself as an exploiter. She Googles places to volunteer. She presses food and money on people in the street, among them a black man who turns out to be waiting for a table at a restaurant. She invites the old woman next door and her granddaughters (Rebecca Hall, Amanda Peet) to dinner to show she’s human. Keener is so good at projecting plain, sensible intelligence that when she’s overwhelmed and loses control (as she always does in Holofcener’s movies), her cries don’t seem egoistic, actressy. They evoke those moments when the noise falls away and fog clears and we suddenly realize the breadth of the chasm between what we do and who we think we are.

Holofcener’s plotting can seem casual (many characters, no speeches pointing up the themes, no conventional climaxes), but her dialogue is smart, an oscillating mixture of abrasiveness and balm, of harsh satire and compassionate pullback. As the title of her first feature spells out, the challenge her female protagonists face is “walking and talking”—that is, trying to act with confidence while maintaining awareness and self-control. Hall, a tall actress who can project a charming gawkiness (she has one of the most natural American accents of any Brit I’ve heard), plays Rebecca, a radiology technician who performs mammograms. Pale and raw, socially stunted by her mother’s suicide, she has too much awareness, while her sister, Mary (Peet), sports an orangey salon tan and is all reckless impulse. It might seem too thematically tidy that Rebecca looks at women’s insides while Mary stays on the surface (she gives facials), but together they embody the two overriding sources of female anxiety: sex hormones (Rebecca calls breasts “tubes of potential danger”) and the beauty mask.

As in Lovely & Amazing, Keener’s character in Please Give has a daughter with beauty issues. Abby (Sarah Steele) is plump with terrible skin, and longs for that one article of clothing—an expensive pair of jeans—that she thinks will change her life. This leads to a shopping scene in which she screams and swears at Kate in a clothing store, then locks herself in the dressing room until closing time. The film is all suggestive crosscurrents: Abby wishes her mother would tell her the truth about her looks instead of using maternal euphemisms, as Rebecca and Mary wither under their self-centered grandmother’s meanness. Yet you can’t hate the grandmother. Once or twice, Guilbert gives you a glimpse of huge frightened spirit, trapped in that small, failing body.

Holofcener’s fondness softens without sentimentalizing, which is why Platt’s Alex, a fount of self-indulgence, can seem so likable and even—with a delicate cleft chin on a large head—romantic. Only one scene misfires: a visit to the super’s basement apartment intended to underline the obliviousness of Kate’s altruism. Otherwise, Please Give pushes past ridicule and comes out the other side—to a place where even $235 jeans can be a symbol of love.

I resisted applying to Please Give the catchall funny-melancholy adjective “Chekhovian” because of an actual Chekhov movie opening: Anton Chekhov’s The Duel, based on one of the author’s rare forays into longer-form fiction. The actors are Brits, and I’ll admit to a bias against them. I’ve seen too many crisp, mannered British productions in which all the line readings sounded like, “What ho, Olga Ivanovich!” Then there’s the fact that few Western peoples are as temperamentally unalike as the English and the Russians. But the Georgian-born Israeli director, Dover Koshashvili (who made the bitterly funny Late Marriage), and the screenwriter, Mary Bing, have gotten the rough texture and the pitch, the music, exactly right. From time to time the rhythms are so evocative you’d think they’d unearthed a new (early) Chekhov play.

The film takes place in a resort on the sun-soaked, insect-ridden Black Sea, where Laevsky (Andrew Scott) has escaped with his beauteous married mistress, Nadia (Fiona Glascott)—only to get word, once the romantic doldrums have set in, that her husband has died and he’s stuck with her. Broke, indolent, pickled in vodka, he’s oblivious to the fact that Nadia has been trading sexual favors for hats and luxuries. Among the locals is a tall, glowering zoologist named Von Koren (Tobias Menzies), who seems viscerally offended by Laevsky’s idleness. As Laevsky’s sanity becomes more precarious, Von Koren’s contempt edges into outright militancy. Out of all this free-floating desperation and anger comes the title exchange.

The problem with Bing’s screenplay is that it doesn’t nail the story’s ideological underpinnings—the notion that Von Koren is on the Darwinist-eugenicist cusp with an urge to rid Russia of useless Oblomov types like Laevsky. That slackens the structure and makes the duel, when it comes, slightly baffling in its motivation. And because Menzies’s Von Koren is so peripheral, our sympathy drifts to Scott, whose escalating hysteria is unexpectedly winning. Glascott plays Nadia as such a poetically confused ingénue that I’d love to see her tackle Nina in The Seagull. Though it’s not all it could be, Anton Chekhov’s The Duel is convincingly—yes—Chekhovian.

In Harry Brown, an old-age-pensioner Death Wish, murderous punks are taking over an English housing project and the mild, elderly widower Harry (Michael Caine) is driven, after a friend is murdered, to get back in touch with the soldier self he shamefacedly laid to rest after serving in Northern Ireland. I wish there were another wrinkle, but it is what it is: Seething Harry clearing the streets of scummy thugs while a detective (Emily Mortimer) on his tail wrestles with ethical questions that are finally beside the point when a taunting homicidal degenerate’s hands are around her throat. The chief problem is that Caine makes a grave, soulful vigilante avenger, and first-time director Daniel Barber gives the film a dank, streaky, genuinely unnerving palette. Moral artists have no business making a fascist, reactionary movie this effective. To hell with them.

But Harry Brown shrinks beside The Human Centipede. If you grew up loving horror and exploitation films, torture porn poses certain dilemmas—because what attracted us in the first place was the flouting of taboos. We believe in the idea of “transgressive” art, right? Well … I’m not sure I want to live in a world that would embrace this particular monstrosity, a clinical, detached portrait of a German sadist who performs experiments on two women and a man, removing parts of jaws and knees, sewing mouths onto anuses, and running a digestive tube … never mind. The director forces into our mouths what he forces into the mouths of his female characters. The movie stinks to heaven.

See Also:
Catherine Keener on Her Role in Please Give

Please Give
Sony Pictures Classics. R.

Anton Chekhov’s The Duel
Highline Pictures. NR.

Harry Brown
Samuel Goldwyn Films. R.

The Human Centipede
IFC Films. NR.


The Selfish Altruist